Prepare Your Middle Managers to Lead and Manage Change

By: Dr. Dawn-Marie Turner

Prepared Middle Managers Essential To Prevent “Resistance to Change”

It doesn’t seem to matter the type of organization the stories are similar. Managers express feeling uninformed and unprepared for the multiple organizational changes they are expected to lead, manage, or at least support. They describe their executive leaders’ becoming defensive if they ask too many questions about the decision. Some describe receiving a curt “just get it done” when they ask for more information. Many talk about being called resistant when they express their concern about the timing or implementation of the change.

Informed, prepared, and actively involved mid-level leaders are critical success factors in every organizational change effort.

Leadership and Management Two Sides of the Same Coin

Before we talk about what is needed to prepare your mid-level leaders it’s helpful to take a moment to talk about the difference between leadership and management.

Management expert Henry Mintzberg argues that separating management and leadership is misguided. He states every leader must know how to manage and every manager must be able to lead.

I agree. The knowledge and skill to do both is especially necessary when it comes to organizational change.

In this post I use the term leader and manager interchangeably. That’s because I don’t view leadership and management as two distinct entities. Rather each is one side of the same coin. When I use the term leader it includes people with the title of leader, but it also includes people with the title of manager or supervisor.

A leader who is not able to manage (facilitate, plan) change won’t be able to lead it. Conversely a manager who is not able to lead (envision, inspire) change won’t be able to manage it. “When it comes to your organization’s success with change, every leader—whether a senior executive, a mid-level manager or a frontline supervisor—requires the confidence and competence to both lead and manage it.”

The Risk of Poorly Prepared Leaders

Regardless of whether change is initiated at the frontline level or from the highest executive level it sends ripples through all levels. Change that is initiated from the grassroots must have executive leadership support and commitment if it’s to be sustainable. Alternatively a change initiated from the executive level of the organization won’t be sustainable unless managers, supervisors and frontline employees adopt the required behaviours and activities.

A 2017 McKinsey survey found only 3% of transformations were successful when line managers and frontline employees weren’t actively involved.

Your managers and supervisors play a key role in connecting the multiple organizational levels your change efforts will impact. They create the bridge between your strategic need for the change and the operational reality necessary to achieve the desired result. Failing to recognize this role and ensure your leaders are prepared to fulfill the role can have dire consequences.

One company paid the ultimate price for failing to actively involve its mid-level managers.

A research study exploring why a multi-level change in a large financial services company failed found it was due to the executive’s failure to actively involve the mid-level managers and frontline supervisors. The lack of involvement placed managers in the position of trying to sell a change they didn’t understand.

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The inability of the organization to make the necessary changes initially led to massive lay-offs and restructuring. Eventually their inability to change led to its demise when it was bought out.

Executive leaders, when asked, attributed the failure to employee resistance. However, the researchers found the employees didn’t oppose the changes. They weren’t “resistant to change”. Many employees agreed with the new mission, and strategies being proposed. The problems arose during implementation. Employees felt marginalized. They believed the change was being done to them.

Researchers also found the middle managers, who could have built the necessary bridge between executive and frontline employees, were not actively involved. Although willing, and some tried, they lacked the information, context, and the skills to do so.

I hear similar stories from managers participating in the Living and Leading Change Certificate course. In every course, after participants explore and apply the essential elements to create healthy organizational change, I am asked a variation of the same two questions.

The first question they ask is: “What do you do when you aren’t given the information about the change?’ They describe situations in which they are given a cursory overview, without context or a clear intended outcome. Then they are expected to implement with a timeline that feels unrealistic.

The second question leaders ask me is more troubling. “How do I ask my executive for the information I need to lead and manage change without sounding negative?” They describe being perceived as resistant or not a team player if they ask too many questions or raise concerns.

Applying the label—resistant to change—to any leader or group increases the risk your change effort will fail.

Prepare your Managers to Be Change Leaders

Recently, after giving a presentation on readiness, I was asked a question that both alarmed and surprised me. One senior leader asked, “What if you don’t have time to prepare people.”

The analogy to this question is to imagine you need to get your family to an event. You are busy and unable to drive them yourself. Time is of the essence so you ask your 17 year old daughter to drive. However, she doesn’t have a full driver’s license. When he or she raises the issue you state, “I don’t have time to teach you. We need to get there.”

Are you scared?

You should be.

Would you be surprised if no one else wanted to get in the car?

Probably not.

This scenario reflects the situation when you don’t make time to prepare your managers and frontline supervisors before expecting them to lead or support your change efforts.

Managers are the translators of your strategic change efforts

Your managers are critical to gaining your employees’ buy-in. Employees buy-in and later commit to take action when they believe in the need for change and it makes sense. Middle managers continually engage in sensemaking to interpret and create order in times of uncertainty. Sensemaking means scanning, interpreting, and defining what the changes will mean in practice.

Think about the managers’ role in sensemaking like a United Nations translator. I have always admired the knowledge and skill needed to move between two languages. To do it well the translator must first have expert command of both languages. They also need active listening and observational skills.

A translator doesn’t just repeat the words. She picks up on the nuances of the speaker. She observes his or her body language, and is alert to the context of the conversation. She must do this if she is to ensure she uses the appropriate word or phrase to keep the context of the conversation. This is important, especially when there isn’t a direct word for word translation.

It’s similar with your leaders. When you announce a change event your leaders receive the information. They pass that information through a sort of practice filter. This filter assesses and translates your change Event (strategy) into operational language. Your managers must understand the need for the change and its desired outcome to translate your change Event as you intended. They also need active involvement, the time and your support to explore and understand how the change will affect current practice.

Only when your leaders understand the change operationally can they help employees begin the transition. Managers who are faced with implementing a change they are not prepared for or they don’t genuinely believe in leads to feeling inconsistent and untrustworthy. 

When your managers and supervisors lack sufficient context, information, skills, and the time to process the change Event either the translation doesn’t happen or it’s weighted toward the current operation. Regardless of which one occurs the net result is the same — a failed change initiative.

Dr. Dawn-Marie Turner

Helping you launch, lead and live change more successfully.

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